Those cardinals who were in Vatican City on February 11 thought they were assembling in the Hall of the Consistory to hear about impending canonisations; instead, they were left stunned by Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he was resigning from the papacy with effect from 8 p.m. on February 28. The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became head of the Holy See on April 19, 2005, and is the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII stepped down in 1415 so as to bring an end to the Great Western Schism, which had seen three rivals claiming to be Pope. Another noteworthy resignation had occurred in 1294, when Celestine V, in response to his own unsuitability for the political and financial burdens of the papacy, issued a decree permitting the Pope to resign, and then resigned. The current pontiff’s reasons are that he no longer has the “strength of mind and body” necessary for the “adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” The Pope’s resignation leaves the ministry vacant, but as the pontiff has not died in office the College of Cardinals, who choose the successor, will not have to hold their electing conclave in the usual interval between 15 and 28 days; the conclave could in theory take place very soon after February 28, but in any case the senior cardinal will take over the papal duties until the election.

After Benedict XVI leaves office, he will play no further role in the Church and will probably devote himself to study. His legacy, nevertheless, will be controversial. An outsider for the papacy, he was elected after a very conservative speech to the electing conclave in 2005; as Pope he has moved against liberal elements in the Church, and has also put the brakes on ecumenism. Most controversially, however, as head of the body that maintains discipline among priests, he has, on the evidence of letters presented in U.S. courts, a long record of covering up widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, though there is no suggestion that he condoned the abuse. On other issues, he has opposed contraception, including condom use to prevent HIV transmission in a marriage, abortion in all circumstances, and in vitro fertilisation. As for a successor, the suggestion is gaining ground that the next Pope should be African or Latin American, but the vote could well be influenced by the fact that half the College of Cardinals is European, even though the bulk of the world’s one billion Catholics live in the developing world. In any case, many of the College were appointed by Benedict XVI himself, so the Church of Rome is unlikely to see any rapid doctrinal changes. That said, the next Pope, in the eyes of most Catholics, should be younger, a better communicator and someone capable of responding to the moral and ecumenical challenges posed by globalisation.

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